Thursday, December 31, 2015

Lines from three songs

Lines from three songs that I think would make dynamite titles for mystery novels (or even mainstream):

Too Dead For Dreaming
(From "Mr. Tambouring Man," by Bob Dylan)

Bleeding Into Fear
(From "Daylight Fading," by Counting Crows)

Everything Dies, Baby
(From "Atlantic City," by Bruce Springsteen)

Addendum:  It came to me, as I was trying to fall asleep, that there's another title lurking in this song:
Meet Me Tonight In Atlantic City.)

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

"The Force Awakens" Was that a good idea?

Having seen “The Force Awakens” today, in a theater with maybe 25-30 people in attendance, and having just spent three days re-watching the first 3 (in order of production) Star Wars movies, I thought I should report my reactions.

First, the trailers, all for action/adventure movies coming in the first half of 2016, were cringe-worthy.  Several were second or third helpings of “franchise” movies, but none gave me any reason even to consider seeing one of them.  I remember none of the titles, and am glad thereof.

But for the main event. I was more impressed with the movie than I had expected to be.  Much of the initial commentary suggested that if hewed very closely to the story line of “A New Hope,” and it did.  I’m not sure that was a good thing however.  What was impressive is how seamlessly the new characters fit into the existing world—and. How impressive the acting of the newcomers is.

I want to start with three of the supporting cast.  John Boyega, as Finn was brilliant, moving from frightened and confused to a growing confidence in his worth and abilities.  I hope we will see him again as the series develops.  And Lupita Nyong’o, as Maz Kanata, the (apparent) owner of the bar (in the scene that, I regret to say, mimicked the cantina scene in “A New Hope” way too closely), exuded a huge amount of charm and charisma.  And her character’s ability to see into people’s souls through their eyes was well-played, if somewhat less than convincing to me.  I’d love to see her again, and with a larger part in the action.  Oscar Isaac, as Poe Dameron (whose droid, BB-8, is at the center of much of the story), did a very convincing job as a pilot in the opening scenes (and later as well).

Adam Driver, on the other hand, as Kylo Ren, did (in my opinion, only an adequate job in, admittedly, a difficult role as the replacement-menace for Darth Vader.  And the part of Supreme Leader Snoke (a bad name, to begin with) was mostly menace done unconvincingly, and probably wasted Andy Serkis.

And Max von Sydow was, I’m afraid, both wasted and prematurely killed in his role as Lor San Tekka.  I saw him and immediately hoped he would be with us for the long haul.

Of the returning characters, Leia (Carrie Fischer) had too little to do, and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) did his thing as well as can be expected.  Han Solo (Harrison Ford), frankly looked tired and sometimes uninterested (the scenes between Han and Leia did not exactly sing), and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) was more of an off-screen maguffin than an on-screen force.

The most important new character, Rey, a scavenger on the planet Jakku, is brilliant, actually, and brilliantly played by Daisy Ridley.  She doesn’t have much of a resume, yet.  But she imbues Rey with strength, resourcefulness, tenacity, and charm.  And her growing awareness that she has something else is handled beautifully. 

The plot is fairly straightforward.  Luke has withdrawn (following what he sees as a failure on his part) to an unknown location.  The New Order (which seems to be simply the remnants of the Empire—down to the body armor and ineffective firepower of the stormtroopers) (led by Snoke) want to capture Luke.  The Resistance (led by Leia) (apparently the new Republic had a malfunction) also wants to find Luke.  Poe Dameron received a map showing Luke’s location from Lor San Tekka, plants the map on BB-8, and is captured by the New Order and tortured by Kylo Ren.  The New Order then sets out to find the droid, find the map, capture Skywalker, and kill him, thus ending the power of the Jedi.

The droid is rescued by Rey, a scavenger on the planet Jakku, from another scavenger.  She is then drawn into the search for Skywalker, first through a chance encounter with Finn, which results in her stealing a space ship…the Millennium Falcon.

What ensues is a series of chases, captures and escapes, and a final battle in which the Resistance (this is not, really, a spoiler) gains the upper hand on the New Order.

It actually plays better than it reads.  There’s enough suspense to keep us involved, and enough emotional resonance to move us occasionally to tears.  If you loved “A Hew Hope,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” and “The Return of the Jedi,” I think you will love this as well.  I was quite impressed.

I have (of course) a couple of issues, and some of this may give away things that are best left anyone who hasn’t yet seen the movie to discover for themselves.

The New Order is as tactically (and strategically) as inept as the Empire ever was.  Once again, the stormtroopers have no idea how to fight a battle.  As the Empire did, the New Order places its strategic emphasis on a doomsday machine (despite the first two having proved to be abject failures).  Once again (apparently Machiavelli’s writings never made it to his part of the galaxy, or he had no indigenous counterpart) the New Order seems bent on ruling through terror and destruction, rather than through co-opting local leaders and creating a stable world.  The Resistance leadership provides us with no strategic concept at all, except to oppose the new Order (the new Republic having apparently works out so well).  The movie works well as an adventure story, with heroes and villains and beautiful princesses and magic weapons, but fails the geopolitical part badly.

And I have to say a word about the new world-destroying doomsday weapon.  The first two were spaceships.  This one is a planet-based weapon capable pf projecting its power apparently anywhere in the galaxy.  It works by sucking all the energy out of the star at the center of a solar system and projecting all that energy onto the target.  The problem is, unless someone has managed to alter this one of the laws of physics, that you could get only one shot per solar system.  Once you suck all the energy out of the star, you have a dead star left (and, probably, insufficient mass to keep the planets from escaping their orbits).  Obviously, however, the New Order seems to have circumvented that problem, thus also managing not to have to move and rebuild after every use.  Oh, well.  Only people like me will care, I suppose.

Monday, December 28, 2015

"The Return of the Jedi," and comcluding remarks

Well, tonight was “Return of the Jedi,” and tomorrow I’ll go see “The Force Awakens.” 

So, how well does “Return of the Jedi” hold up?  Not very well at all.  The movie runs a little over 2 hours.  But basically the first 40 minutes is devoted to getting Han back from the evil clutches of Jabba the Hutt.  Frankly, that could have been handled in 5-10 minutes, or skipped altogether, if they’d wanted to.  For the rest of the movie, well…

The Imperial forces are no better trained or led than before (example:  an Ewok steals a speeder, and three of the four guards rush off after him).  (And, by the way, what’s with the stormtrooper body armor that seems to do nothing but impede their actions and slow them down?    I sure doesn’t deflect or otherwise protect from blaster shots.)  The Emperor displays overconfidence bordering on arrogance, including violations of many of the rules for evil overlords [see #s 1, 5, 6, 10, 21, 22, 23, 25—especially #25, 27, 29, 32, 36, 40, 47, 52 (with a slight modification), 56, 62, 63, 70, 86, 87 (this one would have gotten Darth Vader killed long before the end), 96, and some I may have overlooked; there are also other lists].  I mean, really, how many times to Han and Chewie get captured without getting shot? 

Now I realize that the heroes have to win in the end, but this makes it all way too easy for them.

Let me close by saying that in all this, I am mostly ignoring the technology (faster-than-light travel, high-energy, hand-held weapons that apparently never need reloading, light sabers, and the Emperor’s fingers), which is mostly extraneous to the plot.  And overall, these three movies are a remarkable achievement. 

We’ll see how “The Force Awakens" goes.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

On re-viewing Star Wars: A New Hope"

I decided to re-watch the original first three Star Wars movies before we go see “The Force Awakens,” and last night was what I continue to think of as “Star Wars,” but is actually “A New Hope.”  I remembered the movie remarkably well, given that I haven’t seen it since 1977, and it also holds up remarkably well.  There are a few things, though…

(If you haven’t seen “A New Hope,” or are planning to re-watch it, there be spoilers blow.)

First of all, the Imperial forces are lousy shots…and lousy tacticians.  Dozens of them firing at Han, Chewy, Luke and Leia, and no hits.  (Apparently, aiming blasters is hard.)  Good tactics would call for simultaneous firing to blanket the field.  This is strange, because earlier Obi-Wan told Luke to notice how precise the blast points of the blasters were on the ruins of the ‘droid sellers’ camp, 

Second, our fearless foursome dives into a trash chute.  Didn’t the bad guys notice?  Tell anyone?

Finally, the big thing.  The gang has rescued Leia and are ready to board the Millennium Falcon, but for the guards.  Off to the side, through a large entryway, Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi appear, flailing at each other with their light sabers.  The guards desert their posts to watch.  (These guys are really dumb, you know?)  Obi-Wan observes the good guys heading for the Falcon, and smiles.  He has a plan.  His plan is to stop fighting (which he does) and allow Darth Vader to kill him (which Vader does).  Luke screams, “NOOOOOOOOOO,” and begins blasting away.  The troopers return fire, and Vader paces toward the falcon.  No one calls for back-up, or notifies anyone that the ship is about to take off.  So far, regulation Imperial stupidity.

But consider this.  What is Obi-Wan’s plan?  Doesn’t it have to be to enrage Luke, to make him thirst for vengeance?  And isn’t that the first step toward the Dark Side?  So what’s he  up to here? 

For a very different take on the entire saga, there's always this.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Ed McBain, Learning to Kill: Stories

Ed McBain, Learning to Kill: Stories
Harcourt: An Otto Penzler Book.  2006
ISBN 978-0-15-101222-0

McBain died in 2005, and this collection of 25 stories was published in 2006.  It traces his development as a writer, from very early in his career up to the point at which be broke through.  The years of publication, and the number of stories from each year, are:
1952: 1

1953: 9
1954: 6
1955: 5
1956: 2
1957: 2

The first three 87th Precinct books (Cop Hater, The Mugger, and The Pusher) were published in 1956, and he never really looked back.*

The stories in  Learning to Kill range from adequate to very good; he was obviously learning how to write, and what he was good at.  The best of them, in my opinion, are the five "cop" stories--"Small Homicide,"  "Still Life," "Accident Report" (all 1953), "Chinese Puzzle"  (1954), and  "The Big Day" (1955).  They all hold up very well as procedurals, and the breakthrough in the 87th Precinct books is the development of a group of characters who stand out as individuals (in these 5 stories, there's not a lot of characterization).  But he shows very clearly what also stands out in the 87 Precinct books, that most police work is not dramatic, that it's a matter of routine.

The range of work here, though, is pretty impressive, from PI stories (mostly not very good) to some character studies, to at least one "caper" story (with a decidedly non-caperish ending).  I found his attitude toward the PI work interesting.  As he writes:
When you start writing parodies of private eye stories, it's time to stop writing them...I had written the last of the Matt Cordell stories and was ready to give up on the subgenre.  Not only was I finding it increasingly more difficult to justify a private citizen investigating murders, but Cordell presented the added problem of an investigator who wasn't even license!
Fortunately for us (as readers), a lot of writers continued to work around that problem.

I would have to say that this collection is interesting and useful mostly as a window into McBain's development as a writer,  For that reason, I think arranging the stories in the order in which he wrote them, rather than classified by "type," would make for a more interesting, and useful, sequence for the reader.  Still, if you like McBain's work, you will like seeing where it started and how it developed.  While the book seems to be out-of-print, it is widely available from used book sellers.

*A complete list of his novels can be found here.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Chris Ewan, The Good Thief's Guide to Berlin

Chris Ewan, The Good Thief's Guide to Berlin
Minotaur Books, 2013

With apologies--there are a number of spoilers in this review.

Charlie Howard, thief extraordinaire and mystery writer, has been in Berlin, breaking into apartments of publishing house editors who are out-of-town at a convention.  And trying to finish his current manuscript.  (In that respect, he has the assistance--or, perhaps, motivation because of the presence--of his editor, Victoria.)  His Paris contact, Pierre, calls him with word that the brother of a mutual friend wishes to talk with him about a burglary-for-hire, in Berlin.  He agrees to meet the man, who is a security officer at the British Embassy in Berlin, Freddy Farmer.  An important "package" has been stolen from the Embassy, Farmer has 4 suspects, and he wants Howard to go to their residences in a specifies order, and search for the package.  Which he will not describe.  Howard agrees, and they settle on a fee (a specified minimum per place searched, plus a bonus for finding the "package"). 

While in the first apartment, Howard looks out the window and sees a murder being committed in an apartment across the street.  And he does not find the package.  He does, however, call the Berlin police, who find no body, and no sign of a murder.  Oops.

Unfortunately for Howard, the Russians, the French, the Americans, and the Germans are all after the "package" as well.  The Russians, in particular, are willing to use threats of violence, and actual violence, to gain his cooperation.  The Americans offer more money--and then they kidnap Victoria.

At the apartment of the second suspect (an embassy employee, Jane, who is not at home, and turns out to be missing), Howard finds 4 pages of what appears to be a coded message--but Freddy tells him that's not the "package."  Attempt #3 third (one of the embassy cleaning people) is also fruitless, but he finally turns up the "package"--a bird cage, complete with talking parrot--in the home of the fourth, a high-ranking embassy official.

I like the characters, and the story moves right along.  But there are at least two major--and I mean major--difficulties with the plot.  First, Howard witnesses a murder, and one of the suspects is missing.  He does not think to ask for a description, and only much later demands to see the personnel dossiers of the suspects.  (And when he sees them, he keeps to himself the knowledge that Jane is the woman he saw being murdered.  Obviously, he's not telling the embassy folks, whom he doesn't exactly trust.  In any event, I thought it was fairly obvious, and had been expecting that Jane was the victim for quite some time.)  Second, the bird (Burt) keeps asking if Howard wants to hear him count.  Now, when I hear something about a series of numbers, and I know a code is somehow involved, I leap to the conclusion that there might, just might, somehow be a connection.  But not Charlie.  Until, actually, Victoria figures it out in the climactic scene.

A somewhat minor plot difficulty is that the code turns out to be ridiculously easy to solve (it's apparently a letter-substitution cipher of a remarkably simple sort, even given that it dates from World War II or immediately after)--it's decoded by a German who lives under an abandoned amusement park.  In about 15 minutes.  Go figure.

I enjoyed the characters and the setting well enough to read more in the series, but I rather hope the rest of the plots are somewhat tighter.  ✩✩✩1/2

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Julian Symons, Great Detectives: Seven Original Investigations

Julian Symons, Great Detectives: Seven Original Investigations
Illustrations by Tom Adams

Harry N. Abrams Publishers, 1981
Available from used book sellers

Symons tells/makes up lives for 7 major figures of detective fiction: Sherlock Holmes, Jane Marple, Nero Wolfe, Ellery Queen, Jules Maigtry, Hercule Poirot, and Philip Marlowe.  Presumable someone thoought this was a good idea.  It was not.  It's impossible to try to construct a biography of a fictional character who (essentially) does not age, and none of these characters ages noticeably in the course of the books/stories.  The best (least disappointing?) chapters result from Symons writing a pastiche instead of trying to do the biography thing--the Holmes and Maigret chapters.  I'm glad I only paid $4 for it; anything much more than that would have been excessive.  I might add that the illustrations are mostly easily ignored, and mostly not worth doing anything but ignoring.

E.J. Copperman, Ghost in the Wind

E.J. Copperman, Ghost in the Wind
Berkley  (2015)

ISBN-10: 0425269272
also available as an ebook

We're back at the Haunted Guesthouse, and the ghost of a dead English rocker (Vance McTiernan) shows up.  His daughter (Vanessa) died about 4 months earlier; he's convinced she was murdered.  And he's heard (through the ghostvine) that help is available.  The resident ghost-sleuth (Paul Harrison) is reluctant to take the job, but Aloison Kirby, who owns the place, and who was in her youth enamored of McTiernan's music, tackles it on her own.

Vanessa had been a member of a local rock band, which she had recently left, and, according to her half-brother, had recently signed a contract for the release of a CD of her songs with a prominent indie label.  She died of an allergic reaction to soy sauce, which was almost certainly either murder or suicide.

As she proceeds with her investigation, Alison keeps encountering a (ghost) woman pulling a wagon, who is looking for Lester...and Alsion takes that on as well.
Alison''s relationship with the local police detective (McElone) is gaining depth, and the regulars (Alison's daughter Melissa, her mother, her (ghost) father, her boyfriend Josh...) are on the scene and contribute to the story in various ways.

I will say there is one scene in the book that I thought was superfluous, although I understand why it's there.

Copperman does a very nice job tyong together the various plot strands, and the conclusion is both surprising and satisfying--including the resolution of Alison's allergy issues.  Worth your time and your money.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

James R. Benn, Billy Boyle: A World War II Mystery

James R. Benn, Billy Boyle:  A World War II Mystery
Soho Crime, 2006

ISBN-10: 1616953551

Billy Boyle, who has just been promoted to detective in the Boston PD, finds  himself in the Army.  Family connections get him into OCS and an appointment on the staff of his Uncle Ike (whose wife is a relation of the Boyles).  His role is to serve as a special investigator as needed.  And he is almost immediately needed, as a member of the Norwegian government in exile dies at a conference to finalize plans for an invasion of Norway (a joint operation of the US, the UK, and the Norwegians).  Also, there's apparently a German spy around.  Billy is uncertain of his ability to investigate the matter But  with the assistance of a Polish Captain (and Baron) Piort Augustus Kazimierz--Kaz--and an English WREN (Daphne Seaton), he begins to make progress.  The settings all seem realistic, and the evocation of the atmosphere in England in 1942 is extraordinarily well done.  Billy's progress toward a solution is also well-handled, and plausible.  And the ending is just flat out brilliant.  As a debut novel in a series (of, to date, 10 books), this sets the bar very high for the succeeding books.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Erle Stanley Gardner, TCOT Deadly Toy

Erle Stanley Gardner, The Case of the Deadly Toy (1959)
Available as an ebook

I ran across a mention of this book earlier today, and realized that there was a Perry Mason book I had not read.  So I acquired it.  Fortunately, most of the Mason books are relatively short, and quick reads; this one took me maybe 2.5 hours.

A young woman shows up on a Saturday, hoping to find Mason in his office.  She has flown down from San Francisco to see the ex-wife of her ex-fiancé, but has decided she needs legal help.  (Her ex-fiancé is, she believes, behind a series of threatening notes, printed on a child's printing press (which, as it turns out, weighs 85 pounds, so it's not your normal child's toy) that have been mailed from LA.  Furthermore, her ex-fiancé has assaulted the man she started seeing.

And here's a surprise (or two)--her ex-fiancé turns up in LA, found dead in a country club parking lot.  And her new beau shows up in LA (he disappears from the book right after he appears, which I thought was odd.)

Meanwhile, her ex​'s ex-wife is trying to hold onto custody of her son.  The son, who is 7, has developed a habit of playing with his step-father's .22 Cold Woodsman piston (although, we hope, only when it is unloaded).

Mason's client is, of course, arrested, and Mason, of course, reveals the real culprit. 

Reading the brief bio of Gardner at the end of the book, I discovered that his life (1889-1970) and his Perry Mason series (1933-1973--2 of these were posthumous) coincided fairly closely with the life (1886-1975) and Nero Wolfe series (1934-1974) of Rex Stout.  In my opinion, there's no question who was the better author (that'd be Stout) and who was the more interesting character (Archie Goodwin, actually, but also Wolfe).  But the parallel time line just struck me as interesting.

Friday, November 13, 2015

November 13, 2015. Paris.

Bob Dylan wrote a song, probably in late 1962, probably partly in response to the Cuban missile crisis. That song is “Masters of War,” and here are the lyrics:

Come you masters of war
You that build all the guns
You that build the death planes
You that build the big bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks

You that never done nothin’
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it’s your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly

Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe
But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain
Like I see through the water
That runs down my drain

You fasten the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you set back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion
As young people’s blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud

You’ve thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain’t worth the blood
That runs in your veins

How much do I know
To talk out of turn
You might say that I’m young
You might say I’m unlearned
But there’s one thing I know
Though I’m younger than you
Even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do

Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul

And I hope that you die
And your death’ll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand o’er your grave
’Til I’m sure that you’re dead

The rage there has a history, and it has not gone away or ended. But the end of that rage is simply death. That is the frightening thing about the events today in France, about this song, about the world in which we live. The end of rage is not peace, not justice. It is simply death. Look at the final verse. There’s no hope there. There is only rage and death.

And I hope that you die
And your death’ll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand o’er your grave
’Til I’m sure that you’re dead

There are times when I wish I had a belief in a god of peace and justice. But all the gods seem to be gods of war and hatred and death. And so I do not believe. I hope, but hope comes increasingly more difficult. And I do not hope for more deaths, but I’m afraid a lot of people out there will agree with Dylan:

And I hope that you die
And your death’ll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand o’er your grave
’Til I’m sure that you’re dead

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Friday, October 23, 2015

Copperman & Cohen, The Question of the Unfamiliar Husband

E.J. Copperman and Jeff Cohen, The Question of the Unfamiliar Husband.
Midnight Ink, 2015
ISBN 978-0-7387-4350-9
Also available as an ebook

Samuel Hoenig is the owner of a rather unique service business, Questions Answered—you have a question, he will find the answer…for a fee.  One fine day, Sheila McInerney enters his place of business (a not entirely converted pizza parlor) and asks (after some preliminaries), “Who is the man in my bed who calls himself my husband?”  Samuel agrees to try to find the answer.

But first he has to persuade Janet Washburn, who assisted him in The Question of the Missing Head, to re-join Questions Answered.

Naturally, the answer is not easily found, and the quest becomes quite complicated.  And Samuel’s approach is hardly conventional, and his interactions with the people he has to deal with are somewhat difficult—he finds it difficult, sometimes, to understand their behavior, and they almost always have difficulty understanding him, or his approach.  It’s hard to go into any detail without giving things away that readers should discover for themselves.
But, damn, is this a fine book.  I wound up reading it instead of paying attention to the Blue Jays/Royals game (3-3 in a rain delay right now—11:23 PM EST, Friday, October 23).  I am blown away by the quality of the writing, by the grace and sensitivity with which the characters are depicted, and by the intricacy of the plot.  As much as I enjoyed the first book in this series (The Question of the Missing Head), I found this book a major step forward.  The first one was really good.  This is great. 

Monday, October 19, 2015

Bill Crider, Between the Living and the Dead: A Dan Rhodes Mystery

Bill Crider, Between the Living and the Dead: A Dan Rhodes Mystery
Minotaur Books/St. Martin's, 2015
ISBN 978-1-250-03970-5

In the 22nd installment of the Adventures of Sage Barton's alter ego, Sheriff Dan Rhodes discovered a dead meth dealer (Neil Foshee) in a crumbling, long-abandoned house.  (The house is reputedly haunted, but Rhodes has his doubts.)  The first obvious step is to find Neil's cousins, Louie and Earl Foshee, Neil's meth cookers (whom we have encountered before).  Before we are through, Rhodes (with the assistance of Seepy Barton, college professor and lately branching out into paranormal investigations as Clearview Paranormal Investigation,  and his partner Harry Harris, an academic colleague) finds a skeleton.  He also has to deal with a runaway bull, feral hogs (again), county commissioner Mikey Burns (who wants to acquire an assortment of military equipment, including drones), a turtle,, a college student allegedly researching a paper on small-town drug dealers, his uncle the mayor, and more.

If this sounds fairly complicated, it is.  But we as readers, and Rhodes, as our guide, never lose sight of the central mystery--who killed Neil Foshee, and why.  Rhodes' path to the answer is hardly direct, but he does (as he always does) get there.

Crider knows his characters and his setting thoroughly, and through him we come to know them well.  While I am occasionally less than enchanted by the by-play between Hack (the dispatcher) and Lawton (the jailer), their presence is generally, and is here, an essential part of the book. 

For me, Crider's books have become must-reads, and I'm already looking forward to #23.
This is only of interest to some, but the title is from a poem  by William Wordsworth, "The Affliction of Margaret."  I'm not much of a Wordsworth afficianado, and if I were, I'm still not sure I'd care for this one.  But the verse from which the title is drawn fits well with the book:

I look for ghosts; but none will force
Their way to me: 'tis falsely said
That there was ever intercourse
 Between the living and the dead;
 For, surely, then I should have sight
 Of him I wait for day and night,
 With love and longings infinite.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Sunday Photoblogging ripoffs again

Chris Bertram has a stunning photo of a boulangerie (unclear whether it's still opened or not, but I'd guess closed).  I have a Parisian shop window.

The Top Ten (?) Songs of the 1970s

Bill Crider has been posting links to a compilation of the top 75 songs from the 1970s, based on the criteria used by Cashbox Magazine.  You can find Bill's links to the lists (and comments by his regulars) here:


I wondered what the Billboard list would look like, so I looked.  I have ranked the songs by the number of weeks they are listed at #1, and have not tried to break ties.  Here's what I get (and I'm going to do this in one list).  Overall, 251 songs made it to #1 on Billboard in the 1970s.  Of those, 120 lasted a single week at the top, and 62 held on for 2 weeks.  So only 70 songs lasted 3+ weeks in the number 1 position.  And only 35 were there for 4+ weeks.  I'm going to report those 35 songs.  I should mention that of these 35 songs, I have (I think) 6 on CDs or LPs in my personal collection.

At 4 weeks as the Billboard #1 song (17 songs--about half of the 35 I'm going to list, in no particular order):
Peaches and Herb, Reunited
Rod Stewart, Do Ya Think I'm Sexy
Exile, Kiss You All Over
The Bee Gees, How Deep Is Your Love
The Emotions, Best Of My Love
Andy Gibb, I Just Want To Be Your Everything
Johnnie Taylor, Disco Lady
The Captain and Tennille, Love Will Keep Us Together
Paul McCartney and Wings, My Love
Tony Orlando and Dawn, Tie A Yellow Ribbon 'Round The Old Oak Tree
Roberta Flack, Killing Me Softly With His Song
Johnny Nash, I Can See Clearly Now
Harry Nilsson, Without You
Don McLean, American Pie
Melanie, Brand New Key
The Bee Gees, How Can You Mend A Broken Heart
The Carpenters, Close To You

At 5 weeks (8 songs, a little less than half of the remaining 18):
Donna Summer, Bad Girls
Paul McCartney and Wings, Silly Love Songs
Rod Stewart,  Maggie May
Carole King, It's Too Late
The Osmonds, One Bad Apple
George Harrison, My Sweet Lord
The Jackson 5, I'll Be There
BJ Thomas, Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head

This gets us to the Top 10, songs that held on to #1 for 6 or more weeks.  Six of the 10 made it for exactly 6 weeks,  I'm going to list these from the one I liked least to the one I liked most:
Gilbert O'Sullivan, Alone Again (Naturally)
Chic, Le Freak
The Knack, My Sharona
Roberta Flack, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face
Three Dog Night, Joy To The World (written by the great Hoyt Axton)
Simon and Garfunkle, Bridge Over Troubled Water.

Leaving 4.  One made it 7 weeks, 1  for  8, 1 for 10, and the #1 song of the Billboard charts held the #1 position for 12 weeks.

7 Weeks:
Andy Gibb Shadow Dancing

8 Weeks:
Rod Stewart, Tonight's The Night

10 Weeks (perhaps the worst song in my lifetime to be a #1 hit):
Debby Boone, You Light Up My Life

12 Weeks, the #1 song of the 1970s:
The Bee Gees, Stayin' Alive

Also not a favorite, and I have managed never to see the movie.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The fourth and last song that keeps playing in my head...for my reunion

Jackson Browne's "Fountain of Sorrow" was on his third album, Late for the Sky, and it blew me away.  I love the ending.

Looking through some photographs I found inside a drawer
I was taken by a photograph of you
There were one or two I know that you would have liked a little more
But they didn’t show your spirit quite as true
You were turning ‘round to see who was behind you
And I took your childish laughter by surprise
And at the moment that my camera happened to find you
There was just a trace of sorrow in your eyes

 Now the things that I remember seem so distant and so small
Though it hasn’t really been that long a time
What I was seeing wasn’t what was happening at all
Although for a while our paths did seem to climb
But when you see through love’s illusions, there lies the danger
And your perfect lover looks like a perfect fool
So you go running off in search of a perfect stranger
While the loneliness seems to spring from your life like a fountain from a pool

Fountain of sorrow, fountain of light
You’ve known that hollow sound of your own steps in flight
You’ve had to hide sometimes but now you’re all right
And it’s good to see your smiling face tonight

Now for you and me it may not be that hard to reach our dreams
But that magic feeling never seems to last
And while the future’s there for anyone to change still you know it seems
It would be easier sometimes to change the past
I’m just one or two years and a couple of changes behind you
In my lessons at love’s pain and heartache school
Where if you feel too free and you need something to remind you
There’s this loneliness springing up from your life
Like a fountain from a pool

Fountain of sorrow, fountain of light
You’ve known that hollow sound of your own steps in flight
You’ve had to hide sometimes but now you’re all right
And it’s good to see your smiling face tonight

Fountain of sorrow, fountain of light
You’ve known that hollow sound of your own steps in flight
You’ve had to struggle, you’ve had to fight
To keep understanding and compassion in sight
You could be laughing at me, you’ve got the right
But you go on smiling so clear and so bright

Words and Music by Jackson Browne
© Swallow Turn Music ASCAP
All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

One more song for my high school reunion...

Another song that seems to be a part of my mental reunion play list. 

Recorded by Mary Hopkin, produced by Paul McCartney...See it here.

Once upon a time there was a tavern
Where we used to raise a glass or two
Remember how we laughed away the hours

And dreamed of all the great things we would do
Those were the days my friend
We thought they'd never end
We'd sing and dance forever and a day
We'd live
the life we choose
We'd fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way.
La la la la...

Those were the days, oh yes those were the days

Then the busy years went rushing by us
We lost our starry notions on the way
If by chance I'd see you in the tavern
We'd smile at one another and we'd say

Those were the days my friend
We thought they'd never end
We'd sing and dance forever and a day
We'd live the life we choose
We'd fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way.
La la la la...

Those were the days, oh yes those were the days

Just tonight I stood before the tavern
Nothing seemed the way it used to be
In the glass I saw a strange reflection
Was that lonely woman really me

Those were the days my friend
We thought they'd never end
We'd sing and dance forever and a day
We'd live the life we choose
We'd fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way.
La la la la...

Those were the days, oh yes those were the days

Through the door there came familiar laughter
I saw your face and heard you call my name
Oh my friend we're older but no wiser
For in our hearts the dreams are still the same

Those were the days my friend
We thought they'd never end
We'd sing and dance forever and a day
We'd live the life we choose
We'd fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way.
La la la la...
Those were the days, oh yes those were the days

About the song.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Another song for my reunion play list

My (50th high school) reunion is finally almost here...only 4 days to go...and this song is part of my interior play list.

Melanie Safka

Do you have a photograph when you were still in high school
Were you happy in it
Little reason lots of rhyme
Were you happy in it at the time

Way back in your memory
Do you recall the line
When your heart was in it
And your reason changed your mind
Did you love forever at the time

Are you living here and now
Or in the moments past
Is now tomorrow's memory and will the memory last
How much of this will pass

Do you have a photograph when you were only growing
And your heart was in it
And your reason changed your mind
When you loved forever
But your reason changed your mind

The songs that you once loved to sing
Are ones that make you cry
And wouldn't you just give it all to never say goodbye
We once lived in forevers
But we learned to say goodbye

Do you have a photograph when you were only growing
And your heart was in it
Little reason lots of rhyme
Were you happy in it
But your reason changed your mind
Did you love forever
But your reason changed your mind
Were you happy in it at the time

Is what you wanted long ago long gone from your mind
Asks a ghost in dreaming
Or a friend you left behind
The songs that you once loved to sing
Are the ones that make you cry
And wouldn't you just give it all to never say goodbye
Oh goodbye...goodbye...goodbye...goodbye...

Thursday, September 10, 2015

"Bob Dylan's Dream" and my 50th high school reunion

One week until the reunion, and "Bob Dylan's Dream" keeps  playing in my head:

While riding on a train goin’ west
I fell asleep for to take my rest
I dreamed a dream that made me sad
Concerning myself and the first few friends I had

With half-damp eyes I stared to the room
Where my friends and I spent many an afternoon
Where we together weathered many a storm
Laughin’ and singin’ till the early hours of the morn

By the old wooden stove where our hats was hung
Our words were told, our songs were sung
Where we longed for nothin’ and were quite satisfied
Talkin’ and a-jokin’ about the world outside

With haunted hearts through the heat and cold
We never thought we could ever get old
We thought we could sit forever in fun
But our chances really was a million to one

As easy it was to tell black from white
It was all that easy to tell wrong from right
And our choices were few and the thought never hit
That the one road we traveled would ever shatter and split

How many a year has passed and gone
And many a gamble has been lost and won
And many a road taken by many a friend
And each one I’ve never seen again

I wish, I wish, I wish in vain
That we could sit simply in that room again
Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat
I’d give it all gladly if our lives could be like that

Sunday, August 30, 2015

L. C. Tyler, A Very Persistent Illusion...and thoughts evoked by it

L. C. Tyler, A Very Persistent Illusion
Macmillan (UK), 2009

Chris Sorenson, a minor bureaucrat in a minor British bureaucracy, wonders whether the world exists outside of his consciousness.  (We have scenes interspersed with Descartes.)  In Chris's world, his parents and younger brother died in a crash some 20 years before.  His girl friend Victoria's father dies, leaving behind a strange, hidden past.  My favorite part of the book is Descartes trying to decide between "Dubito ergo sum" and "Cogito ergo sum."  I do love the idea that "I doubt, therefore I exist."  This is not a happy book and it does not have a happy ending, but it's hard to put down.

But it brought something back for me...On December 24, 1980, I was in a fairly serious car crash, which resulted in a broken hip and a 7-day stay in the hospital.  For several years after that (the frequency of this diminished over time), I was occasionally afraid to fall asleep, because I was afraid that what I thought was reality was simply a dream I was having while in a coma.  And if I fell asleep in the dream, I would not wake up.  I did not really need--or want--to be reminded of that.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

William L. DeAndrea, The Fatal Elixir

William L. DeAndrea, The Fatal Elixir
Walker (1997)
Out-of-print, but available from used booksellers.

The second and last Louis "Lobo" Blacke book.  Quinn Booker, Blacke's one-time biographer and now his assistant in the newspaper business (and I the business of finishing some hang-overs from Blacke's days as a lawman), and Blacke have to deal with the fatal consequences of the arrival of Dr. Theophrastus Herkimer in town.  In addition, one of the last men Blacke put in jail (and whom Booker modeled a character on in one of his westerns) has broken out of jail and is headed for the town.  DeAndrea structures the story well, and the characters are all very well drawn (and mostly likeable).  I thought the first of these two books was excellent, and this one is considerably better.  DeAndrea died (at the age of 44) shortly before this one was published, and we will never know how the series would have developed.  He wrote several other books, of which the 8 Matt Cobb books, set in NYC in the television business are probably the best known (and themselves worth the time to read).  (Black and Booker were inspired by Rex Stout's characters, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.)

The return of Sunday copycat photoblogging

Once again, Chris Bertram has a lovely photo over at Crooked Timber.  Here's my brasserie photo, taken in Paris in 2000.


Wednesday, August 19, 2015

William DeAndrea, Written in Fire
A Walker Mystery (1995)
Out of print, but available from used book sellers.

The first (of 2)  Louis "Lobo" Blacke mysteries.  Quinn Booker, from a distinguished New York family, who has made a living as a journalist and writer of "westerns" in the late 19th century, has scored a best seller with his biography of legendary lawman "Lobo" Blacke (now paralyzed from the waist down, having been shot in the back), receives a telegram offering him a job on Blacke's newspaper.  Blacke, of course, has an ulterior, but laudable, motive.  Booker arrives in Montana and is immediately faced with a challenge (as one might say) to his manhood by a quartet of drunks, of whom he bests 2.  Fairly soon, 2  murders--an internationally famous photographer and an associate of Blacke's--occur (which would have been 3, except Booker was lucky).  The portrait of Montana in the late 19th century is vivid and seems accurate, and Blacke (and Booker) make a nice team, unraveling the mystery.  My only complaint is that there's only one more book about them (The Fatal Elixir).  (Blacke and Booker are fairly obviously based on Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.)
✩ ✩ ✩ ✩1/2

Monday, August 17, 2015

Thirteen Guests, by J. Jefferson Farjeon

J. Jefferson Farjeon, Thirteen Guests
Poisoned Pen Press (2015; reprint of 1937 edition
British Library Crime Classics
ISBN-13: 978-1464204890

Twelve people have been invited to the country home of Lord Aveling for an October weekend--an actress, a journalist, a painter (who is painting Aveling's daughter), a wealthy sausage manufacturer and his wife and daughter, a widowed femme fatale (F.F.), a genial cricketeer, a member of Parliament whose career is at a crisis point, a mystery novelist, and a mysterious couple whom no one really knows.  The thirteenth guest injured his ankle as he leapt from the train, and was brought to the party by the F.F.  Naturally, things do not go well.  There are various levels of intrigue, but, of course, the crisis is murder--and not one of the guests, but an apparently unknown outsider.  And things don't end there.  This is truly a classic English country house mystery, from the oddly assorted list of guests, to the dependable police inspector, to the quite convoluted solutions.  I've read another of Farjeon's books (Mystery in White, also part of the reprint series), which has many characteristics in common with this one.  However, Thirteen Guests has a more interesting set of characters and a solution that seems more organic and less contrived.  ✩✩✩✩

Thursday, August 13, 2015

L. C. Tyler, A Cruel Necessity

L. C. Tyler, A Cruel Necessity (2014)
Little, Brown Book Group
ISBN-13: 978-1472115034​

The first in what appears to be a projected series.  The protagonist/narrator is John Grey, who lives in a small Sussex village in the late 1600s, and has completed his studies at Cambridge.  He's ambivalent about moving to London and entering the chambers of a barrister, with the intention of becoming one.  And one night, as he's trying to get home (drunk), a mysterious horseman asks him for directions to the tavern, and throws him a shilling.  When he awakes and continues toward his home he finds a corpse, its throat cut.  What follows is an intrigue centering on Cromwell (who is aging and ill) and Charles Stuart, in exile in Bruges.  Who is a Royalist and who is a Republican?  (Grey's position, at least, is clear.)  Grey investigates the first murder, and subsequent events, albeit not very successfully (as presented, he is not the sharpest sword In the armory).  My favorite character name in the book is Ifnot Davies; you will have to read the book to find out the source of his name.  Well-written and the times are well-evoked.  If this is going to be a series, it's a good beginning.  ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Monday, August 3, 2015

A couple of "golden age" mysteries

Both Rue Morgue Press and the British Library Crime Classics (published in the U.S. by Poisoned Pen Press) have extensive lists of reprints of "golden age" mysteries.  I recently finished one book published by Rue Morgue and one by Poisoned Pen.

Our First Murder
Torrey Chanslor
Rue Morgue Press (1940; reprinted 2011)
ISBN 0-915230-50-x

The Beagle sisters (Amanda and Lutie) inherit a PI agency from their brother Ezekiel, and, with and their cousin (Martha Meecham), move to New York to take it over.  Their first case, is, of course, murder.  A headless body is found in the bed in the apartment of a young woman, by the wealthy young man who loves her.  Amanda and Lutie decide to investigate (and Martha narrates the story).  This was a fun book.  But the solution--which requires 22 pages of explanation by Lutie--is incredibly complicated.  The number of moving parts to the murder plot is more than anyone could possibly expect to actually work.  Still, assuming Our Second Murder is this good, I'm sorry Chanslor wrote only the two mysteries.  (I also have to say, I suspect that Richard and Frances Lockridge knew these books, because the Beagle sisters seen to be a possible inspiration for Pam North's maiden aunts from Cleveland, the Misses Whitsett, in Murder Comes First.) 

The Sussex Downs Murder
John Bude
Poisoned Pen Press (1940, reprinted 2015)

Superintendent Meredith investigates the case of the murder of John Rother, who owned a farm and lime kiln with his brother William.  It appears that John and William's wife Janet may have been involved.  Human bones are found in the lime kilns, but Meredith's investigation seems to be going nowhere--until he discovers that John had, for the 18 months prior to his death, spent most weekends elsewhere.  An investigation of that leads to a house owned  by one Jeremy Reed, who shows up only on weekends.  Janet decamps (and disappears).  William commits suicide--or is murdered.  As with Our First Murder, the murderer's plan is way too complicated to work outside of a book.  But the story is well told (save for way too many excursions into local dialect speech).  Bude had a 20+ reasonably successful career (1936-1956) as a crime writer.  (Incidentally, the setting is near Findon, which is also the home town of Ethelred Tessider, L.C. Tyler's mystery writer and reluctant sleuth.) 

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Return of Copycat Photoblogging

Over at Crooked Timber, Chris Bertram  has a beautiful photograph of the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle.

I have a slightly lower-key image of the interior of the synagogue in the Tuscan hill town of Pitigliano (taken in 2002):

Friday, July 31, 2015

L. C Tyler, Herring on the NIle

L. C. Tyler, Herring on the Nile [2011 (UK); 2012 (US)]
Felony and Mayhem Press (US)
ISBN 978-1-937384-02-9
Available in print and as an ebook

This is the fourth in the series, and (to date) the second best.  (The first--The Herring Seller's Apprentice--seems to me slightly better.)  Following the events in The Herring in the Library, crime writer Ethelred Tressider decides to take a Nile cruise (for research purposes...but he also intended to have company).  Things don't work out exactly as planned, as his expected company does not accompany him--but his agent, Elsie Thirkettle, does. 

Ethelred is cornered by another passender on the boat, a Mr. Purbright, who alleges himself to be an agent of M.I.6, and, mistaking Ethelred (one of whose pen names is Peter Fielding) for Paul Fielder, a best-selling thriller writer' he's seeking help in dealing with possible terrorists and needs some backup.  The other passengers on the boat are the usual strangely assorted lot, none of whom may be quite what they seem to be.  (Among the passengers is Herbie Proctor, a somewhat sleazy and incompetent PI there to protect a client he has never met.  We have encountered Herbie before.)

Not too surprisingly, death intrudes, and Ethelred and Elsie (more or less independently) try to determine what's going on.  For the reader, identifying the murderer should be fairly simple...but figuring out the motive is somewhat less simple.
Be on the lookout for a mention of a famous mystery author (other than Agatha Christie, whose name pops up quite often) and one of that author's books.  Also, treat yourself to Ethelred's responses to a set of interview requests (questions to be answered by email) from various newspapers in England.
A very good entry in what is, so far, a very satisfying series.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Herring-Seller's Apprentice

L. C. Tyler, The Herring-Seller's Apprentice
Felony and Mayhem 2009
(Original publication, Macmillan New Writing 2007)
ISBN 978-1-934609-23-1
I'm not sure why I had not heard of these books before, nor do I remember exactly what called them to my attention.  But I am extraordinarily glad to have made the acquaintance of Ethelred Tressider (author of three series of novels under three names) and Elsie Thirkettle (his agent).
Ethelred, on returning from a holiday in France, is asked by the police in his west-of-England town to identify a corpse, strangled, whom they suspect may be his wife.  After a rather circuitous path, we reach the resolution of the murder and of several, shall we say, difficulties in Ethelred's life.  Elsie leaps at the chance to assist in the solution of the murder (and to narrate parts of the story).  One of the aspects of the book I thought I would not care for is the attempts Ethelred makes at starting the new Inspector Fairfax book, but they work beautifully (most especially the last one). 
The resolution is entirely fair-play and (for me) not exactly a surprise, but it is well-done and emotionally satisfying.  The only thing I can't figure out is how we will from where Book 1 (this one) in the series ends and Book 2 (of 4 so far, Ten Little Herrings; book 5 is due out next month) begins.  But I'll find out, and quite soon--maybe tonight.  The Herring-Seller's Apprentice is a gem.  (And all the titles, so far, are plays on the titles of other mysteries, not very hard to figure out.)

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Testing, 1...2...3...testing

I  bought a new camera today, a Nikon DSLR, with a potential image size of 24 megapixels. This image, of the fence out back, is a reduced image size of an image that was 12 mp--it's only 2.3 mp. I wasn't sure it would post to Blogger, so this is sort of a trial run at how large an image I can post here.